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A Brief History of Popsicles

Are you as hot as we are? Temperatures are hitting the triple digits in D.C. this week, which makes me want to say something clever about third digits and obscenities, but my brain has melted past the point of cleverness and seems to be functioning as little more than a nerve center for "Me Want Ic...

Are you as hot as we are? Temperatures are hitting the triple digits in D.C. this week, which makes me want to say something clever about third digits and obscenities, but my brain has melted past the point of cleverness and seems to be functioning as little more than a nerve center for "Me Want Ice Cream" impulses. Not that I think about ice cream (or maple creemees) all the time, of course. Nope. I'm not that simple-minded.

Courtesy of Flickr user Auntie K

Sometimes I also think about popsicles.

Popsicles originated as a happy accident, according to the food inventions exhibit I just visited at the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum. The story goes that on a chilly San Francisco evening back in 1905, an 11-year-old boy named Frank Epperson was making himself a soft drink, using a cup and a stirring stick to blend a powdered mix with water. Somehow he got distracted and left the concoction on his front porch overnight. In the morning, he discovered the drink had frozen with the stick inside, making a handle of sorts. Eureka!

Amazingly, by the time it occurred to Frank as an adult that such frozen treats might be marketable, no one else had thought of (or stolen) his idea yet. He patented "frozen ice on a stick" in 1923 and started making what he called "Eppsicles" and his children soon termed "Popsicles." A year or two later, Epperson sold his patent to the Joe Lowe Co. The nickel-priced novelties soon took off like wildfire. (Well, really cold wildfire.) These days, the brand name is owned by Unilever, but most of us refer to all ice-on-a-stick as "popsicles," the way we call all tissues "kleenex."

I admit that there's something alluring about those old-fashioned, tongue-staining, splittable-if-you-must popsicles, the kind sold from ice cream trucks and convenience-store freezers. But I also love homemade popsicles, the kind my mom made with one of those white plastic Tupperware kits. She would freeze orange juice, yogurt, or a mixture of both, like a creamsicle. These healthy variants miraculously fell into the "eat as much as you want without asking permission" category when my brother and I were kids, foraging in the freezer between runs through the sprinkler on summer vacation.

Inspired by that, here are a few ideas for making your own popsicle variations:

1. Puree fresh watermelon with a hint of lime juice for a sweet treat with no added sugar.

2. Use shot glasses instead of plastic molds for a more elegant look, like La Tartine Gourmand's rhubarb and raspberry yogurt ice pops.

3. Put a stick in a chunk of peeled banana, and freeze it with a tasty coating like chocolate or peanut butter—or both, as Simple Bites does.

4. Make bite-sized pops using toothpicks stuck in grapes or blueberries.

5. Who says popsicles have to be sweet? Try unusual flavors like sour plum, wasabi-citrus or even pickle juice pops.

What other ideas do you have?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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